The Joni Ortio who hit the ice for the first practice of Abbotsford Heat training camp on Friday morning is far different from the player that local fans might remember from his first two abbreviated stints with the team.
Just ask him.
"I'm a lot better goalie, that's for sure," asserted the 22-year-old Finn, who had a tough go of it in Abbotsford in 2011-12 but is coming off a terrific season in the SM-liiga, Finland's top pro league.
"Last year gave me a lot of confidence. I didn't have any slumps during the year – I was able to be pretty consistent."
Consistency, or lack thereof, was the root of Ortio's struggle in his first crack at establishing himself on this side of the pond, and his AHL stats to this point (a 1-5 record, a 3.36 goals against average and an .876 save percentage) aren't pretty.
But in fairness, it's a tiny sample size, which was part of the issue – he didn't have much opportunity to get into a groove. It could also be argued that the circumstances surrounding the games he did get into were less than ideal.
After joining the Heat late in the 2010-11 campaign, Ortio's debut came in the regular season finale vs. the Toronto Marlies, after the team had been eliminated from playoff contention. He was essentially hung out to dry in a 6-0 loss which saw Toronto go 4-for-4 on the power play.
In 2011-12, Ortio was set to serve as Leland Irving's backup in Abbotsford, but he struggled at the Young Stars prospects tournament in Penticton and never seemed to earn the trust of Heat head coach Troy Ward.
He made just nine appearances over four months in Abbotsford, and only two of those were starts as Ward rode more experienced goalies in Irving (at the start of the season) and then Danny Taylor (after Irving was recalled by the Flames following an injury to Henrik Karlsson). In late January, Ortio returned to TPS Turku, his hometown team, in search of more playing time.
"That pretty much saved my year," recalled Ortio, who admitted it was "frustrating as hell" to see game action so infrequently.
"You can only develop to a certain point by just practicing. You've got to get into games, and that's exactly what I got when I got home."
Indeed, after getting into 14 games with Turku to close out the 2012 campaign, Ortio moved over to HIFK Helsinki in 2012-13 and established himself as a solid No. 1 keeper. He saw action in 54 of the team's 60 regular season games, posting a 23-20-9 record, a 2.42 goals against average and a .917 save percentage, and backstopped the club to the second round of the SM-liiga playoffs.
His strong performance wasn't lost on the Flames, and this past spring, general manager Jay Feaster pronounced him ready to compete for the No. 1 job in Abbotsford.
He got off to a sensational start at the Young Stars tournament earlier this month – against the Vancouver Canucks, he stopped 39 of 40 shots as the Flames won 4-1.
Ward felt it was "critical" for Ortio to get off on the right foot, and noted the youngster's much-improved consistency throughout Flames training camp.
"I thought in the past, he was inconsistent," Ward explained. "He'd have a real good practice, and then he'd have a not-so-good practice.
"I think he's just more mature, and with that maturity, he's much more consistent," he added. "He hasn't had the peaks and valleys (this fall). He's been more of a flat line for me. Never special – well, you could call the Vancouver game special – but never worse than good."
Ortio attributed much of his early success to the confidence gained during his workhorse season in Helsinki. Beyond that, he's more comfortable this time around with the on-ice and off-ice transition to North America.
"You kind of don't know what to expect the first time," said Ortio, a sixth-round draft pick by the Flames in 2009 who served as Finland's starting goalie at two World Junior Championship tournaments. "A big part of your energy goes toward that – just learning new things.
"Compared to this year, I knew what the deal is and what was going to happen, and I didn't have to focus my energy on that. I can focus that on the ice."
• Ward said he's not yet sure how he'll divide the playing time between Ortio and rookie pro Laurent Brossoit, the other goalie in training camp, when the Heat host the Utica Comets in an exhibition game on Sunday (7 p.m., Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre). He'll make the decision in consultation with Clint Malarchuk and Jordan Sigalet, goalie coaches for the Flames and Heat, respectively.
• To this point of training camp, Ward has enjoyed the youthful makeup of the Heat roster.
"For the most part, we had good energy," he said. "Guys are a little bit more willing to do what I think they need to do, versus if you're a Ben Walter or a Krys Kolanos, it's more like, 'I'll ease myself into this.' They're eager and they're hungry."